The plan is intended to make the work more equitable among the district justices.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- There are some changes in store for Lawrence County courts next year.
President Judge Ralph Pratt of common pleas court has sent a proposal to state officials to change the boundaries of some of the magisterial districts and a proposal to create a central court where all preliminary hearings would be held.
The Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts is reviewing the plan, and it will go to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by July 31 for final review, said Philip Boudewyns, Lawrence County's court administrator.
The changes are an effort to make a more equitable workload among the county's five district magistrates, he said. Court officials are permitted to propose changes in magisterial districts after every census, he noted.
The proposed changes would shift some burden from District Magistrate Melissa Amodie of New Castle whose current caseload exceeds 5,000 per year.
The other district justice's case loads range from 1,685 to 3,362, according to the report sent to the state for review.
The plan would include shifting criminal and civil cases from New Castle's 6th Ward to District Justice J.V. Lamb's magisterial district, which includes Mount Jackson, Bessemer, Little Beaver, Mahoning, North Beaver, SNPJ, Taylor and Union.
All state police criminal, traffic and nontraffic cases stemming from Amodie's district would go to District Justice Samuel Battaglia's office in Ellwood City. He also covers Ellport, Ellwood City, New Beaver, Perry, Wayne and Wampum.
Battaglia would also pick up all cases from Little Beaver Township and Enon Valley under the new plan. Those areas are now handled by Lamb.
Any criminal cases coming from the Lawrence County Vocational Technical School and any dog citations now filed at Amodie's office would be given to District Justice David Rishel in Shenango Township under the new plan.
Judge Pratt is also proposing a central court that would bring Rishel, Battaglia and District Justice James Reed to the courthouse complex to conduct all preliminary hearings. Lamb and Amodie would not be involved because they already have a much higher number of cases than the other district justices, the court administrator said.
Boudewyns said they investigated a similar concept already in place in Beaver County that appears to flow more smoothly than Lawrence County's current system. Preliminary hearings in Lawrence County are now held in the office of the district justice with jurisdiction.
He said Beaver County has fewer cases going to trial with its system and more plea agreements. It would also be a shorter distance for the sheriff's office to transport prisoners in many cases, he added.
The judge has proposed locating central court in the county warehouse across from the county jail. The building is vacant.
County commissioners are now considering the idea. Boudewyns said the costs to locate a central court in the building would be small and possibly involve adding some computer lines to the building.
Boudewyns said if the judge's plan gets approval from the state, it should go into effect in January.